Kid Victory is a powerful, ambitious and disturbing new musical by legendary John Kander and playwright Greg Pierce about pedophilia, kidnapping, and adolescence. It is a story as gripping in emotion as in psychological insight.
When Kander was composing with the late lyricist Fred Ebb, he was not a stranger to the dark side. Tackling strong dramas like Nazi Germany (Cabaret), murder (Chicago) and racism (The Scottsboro Boys), they drew you into the night with their captivating music blanketing the underside of life. Kander and his new partner, Greg Pierce, now approach a subject that is not new but addressed through the contemporary realm of the internet. Kid Victory, at the Vineyard Theater, is viable musical theater with distinct characters, nuanced with ambiguity and glimpses of empathy.
Seventeen-year-old Luke (Brandon Flynn) has escaped back to his Kansas home after being drugged, raped and held captive for almost a year — obviously a horrific experience, although coming home is presenting its own problems. His parents, Eileen and Joseph (Karen Niemba, Daniel Jenkins), are fundamentalist Christians who want him to step back into his old life, resume school and old friendships. At the top of the show, they are planning a welcome-home party for him with the church fellowship. Eileen, in "A Single Tear," reveals how she and all the church members had prayed for him and she had felt, "A single tear, right on my wrist told me you'd be free."
But Luke is not ready for a party or school. Instead, he finds a job working for the town misfit, Emily, a lively, funny single mom played by Dee Rosily, estranged from her daughter but sympathetic to Luke. She runs a lawn ornaments shop, "Wicker Witch of the West" and is the only person Luke finds he can confide in.
Luke had met Michael online. In a chat room, they played a game called Regatta 500 and Luke took an online name, Kid Victory, while Michael was Yachticus Nine. Michael, a manipulating charmer, was a history teacher and a sailor and months after their meeting, Luke agreed to meet him for a sail on his dinghy. Michael took Luke to an island where the boy was drugged and tied up, his captivity complete.
Through the show, time steps back for memories to float between Luke's home and his capture by the psychopathic Michael (Jeffrey Denman). Director Liesl Tommy and scenic designer, Clint Ramos, provide one set serving as Luke's Kansas home, the cell where he was imprisoned, and Dee's wicker shop. The space lighted by David Weiner allows Luke's realistic mental flashbacks to glide like "floating states" from Kansas to the prison, indicating that Luke has not emotionally or psychologically escaped his imprisonment. On the set sits a bare mattress and a pipe with leather straps used as handcuffs. Having no intermission works well for this here-and-then emotional flow.
Kander and Pierce add eclectic songs of various genres. "Lord, Carry Me Home," sung by the cast of nine, opens like a hymn, which is ironic considering the discomfort Luke felt both in his boyhood home and in the cell he sometimes calls "home." Michael teaches him about "Vinland" (Newfoundland), where the Vikings landed 507 years before Columbus. The vaudevillian rhythm of "What's the Point" discloses Luke's meeting with a sassy teen named Andrew. Even this breezy tap-dance number is emotionally interrupted by the nightmare intrusion of Michael. Christopher Windom choreographs dance steps for the chorus who appears and fades, always commenting. Interesting, however, there is no song that Luke sings.
The cast includes Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jenkins as Luke's parents, who cannot understand their son and probably never did. Ziemba stands out with her demanding assurance, and Jenkins’s character seems hesitant around the boy. Portraying the quirky, good-hearted Emily, Dee Roscioli is persuasive with her understanding of Luke but also her loneliness without her daughter.
It is Brandon Flynn and Jeffry Denman who grasp audience attention as Luke and Michael. Flynn is poignant in his insecurity, nervous talking about his imprisonment. He was open to the companionship offered by Jeffrey Denman's Michael, in a layered performance, sometimes empathetic in his mania. The play ends with an unsettling certitude that Luke will never be free of the memory of Michael, lurking insistently at the edges of his mind.
Kudos to John Kander who at age 90 still stands strong in American musical theater, exploring today's world with aspiration and creativity.